Thursday, July 14, 2016

Do the Mets suffer from the Avis syndrome?

Back in the day, Avis Rent-A-Car tried a lemonade-out-of-lemon advertising tactic based on their being the second largest company in their business, after Hertz. Their slogan was, "We try harder." I don't know how Avis ranks today by rental volume or revenue, but in customer reviews they are doing badly.

At the beginning of spring training the New York Times' baseball writer Tyler Kepner wrote a piece in which he began by noting how, at that time of year, all fans can imagine their teams, no matter what problems they had the preceding season, having a shot at winning it all. He then gave a worst case forecast for each MLB team (except the Cubs, for whom he wrote, "a championship is inevitable"). I quoted his forecast for the Mets in an earlier post, but will repeat it here:
The starters try hard to keep the ball out of play -- to minimize the impact of the team's shaky defense -- but their 2015 workload wears them down. David Wright's spinal stenosis limits him again, and while Yoenis Cespedes struggles in center field, he hits well enough to exercise his opt-out clause and repeat his protracted free-agent dance.
Here we are at the All-Star Break, and some of Kepner's predictions seem accurate. Wright's back and neck problems have more than limited him; they've led him to have surgery that, at best, may allow him to return to play in September. While Cespedes hasn't struggled much with fielding, he is batting well, so Kepner's prediction of another "protracted free-agent dance" may prove spot on. Indeed, the "shaky defense" prediction may be the one most off the mark, while the surmise that the starting rotation would be worn down seems an understatement. Matt Harvey, following a mostly miserable three months plus, is having surgery and will be out for the rest of the season and probably much of the next. Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz both have bone spurs in their pitching elbows. This leaves Bartolo Colon, Jacob deGrom, and the recently called-up Logan Verrett as the only completely (for now) healthy pitchers in what was, at the season's beginning, considered MLB's most fearsome starting rotation. Zach Wheeler, recovering from Tommy John surgery, was expected to rejoin the roster about now, but his return keeps getting delayed.

Following the Nationals' having taken three of a four game series just before the All Star break from the Mets, putting the Mets six games behind in the NL east and tied with the Marlins for second place in the division, Kepner wrote another Times piece, with the title "The Baseball Gods Clobber the Mets". He began by noting that Nats ace Stephen Strasburg, who pitched against and beat Syndergaard and the Mets during that series, had, along with Nats management, decided that he would not pitch in the All Star Game in view of his recently having been on the disabled list with back problems. By contrast, Kepner quoted Mets skipper Terry Collins, who would manage the NL team, as saying Syndergaard would pitch because his was "not a muscular situation", that "he deserves it", and that "I think the world needs to see him...."

As it turned out, Syndergaard didn't pitch because, as Kepner put it, "instant karma" got the Mets. In Friday's game, Syndergaard started strong but by the fifth inning his velocity had plummeted and he had given up three runs. He left the game, claiming his problem wasn't related to the bone spur but instead to shoulder fatigue. In the same inning Cespedes, also slated to appear in the All Star Game, strained a quadriceps.

Kepner quotes Syndergaard as saying after the game that this would be his first full season in the majors and that so far he had pitched more innings than any other Mets pitcher. Kepner then noted Strasburg's record to date: 12-0 following the Friday victory over the Mets, and after a year in which he was taken off duty before the playoffs "because of a post-surgery innings cap." To counter the argument that pitchers today "just break" Kepner then turned to another Nats starter, Max Scherzer, who has pitched nine seasons without missing a start because of injury, and this season tops the majors in strikeouts.
Scherzer stands out as a pitcher now benefiting from uncommon youthful maturity. He pitched many big games for the Detroit Tigers, but never allowed his competitive drive to overrule physical warnings. Scherzer cited that trait — as well as his innings program and work habits going back to the University of Missouri — as reasons for his durability.
Kepner concludes:
This is not to suggest that the Mets’ pitchers are reckless, or lack the relationship with Collins that Scherzer has had with his managers. But Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz (who has a more troublesome bone spur than Syndergaard) and the slowly recovering Zack Wheeler have all had Tommy John surgery. Another major injury could be catastrophic.
I have to wonder: does the Mets' status as an almost perpetual (exceptions: 1969 and 1986) second place team in New York City cause them to "try harder"?  Has it inculcated a team culture that makes players extend themselves beyond reasonable limits? Are they really plagued by the "injury bug" more than most other teams? I haven't done a statistical search to see if this is true.